Wednesday, 26 March 2008

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798)

Few tomes of maritime horror, mystery and mysticism are as potent and well-realized as Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Published in 1798, this longest of Coleridge's major poems signalled the great paradigm shift in British literature and culture towards the Romantic movement. The images carved by Coleridge's laudanum-influenced words are sublime and haunting, richly textured and filled to overflowing with deep, transformative meaning.

The poem is, in fact, a poem within a poem. As penance for the ordeal which he has been through, the Ancient Mariner is compelled to wander the world at intervals, finding a hapless victim to hear his tale of terror. In this episode, the Mariner pulls aside a Wedding Guest, forcing him to miss the wedding to which he has been invited and instead hear something that leaves him mortified. At the conclusion of the ballad the Mariner gives the shocked Wedding Guest the moral of the story:
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

He is refering, of course, to the critical act which doomed him and his crew: after setting out from port, the Mariner's ship was blown to the southern pole. Beset by ice and snow, their only redemption seemed to come in the form of an Albatross that led them on the path to freedom. Almost by whim, the Mariner one day shot this omen of good luck, with dire consequences.

For so simple a moral lesson, the ballad seems quite excessive, which suggests a deeper sentiment to it than "don't kill things." As the story goes, Coleridge would himself later come to regret the addition of this moral. Honestly, though, I am baffled as to why. Though deceptively simple, like so much in the poem, it signifies a deeper reality.

The fact that the poem has a roughly Renaissance setting is important, and this ballad manages to draw a significant contrast between Renaissance and Romantic ideas. At the fall of the Middle Ages as a consequence of the Black Death, the emphasis in Western civilization turned from an internalistic sensibility aiming towards unity with God to an externalistic sensibility aiming towards control in the absence of God. After all, God seemed very distant during the seemingly random chaos of an indescriminant plague. This idea of control manifested itself in the Renaissance obsession with personal perfectibility, dominion over nature through the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, the legalistic religious rules and dogmas of the Reformation, and the social dynamics of the Enlightenment and American and French Revolutions.

What Coleridge may be condemning here is not simply acts of arbitrary violence against wildlife, but the intrinsic violence against nature of the cold, externalist gaze of the Renaissance and the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. The Albatross, considered a good omen amongst sailors, stands as a symbol of the salvatory power of nature. By shooting the bird the Mariner commits an act of gross alienation which casts himself and his crew adrift in the hostile world, a metaphor for the alienation of humanity from each other and from the world in the Modern era.

This alienation takes on an ironic character comparable to Dante's visions of Heaven and Hell. The ship is stranded in the middle of the ocean yet the crew is dying of thirst:
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

They are surrounded by the life-giving element (nature) but the intensity of the equatorial sun (symbolizing the "light" of Reason) sucks all moisture and therefore life from them. Around his neck the crew replace the cross of Christ - the symbol of spirit and redemption - with the dead Albatross - the symbol of their alienation and eventual annhilation.
Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

Upon seeing a ship on the hazy equatorial horizon, the Mariner is forced to cannibalize himself in order to speak, ripping open his own arm so that the blood can wet his throat and lips enough to speak. Amongst the hopelessly alienated, the hope offered by external things (possessions, affluence and luxury) seems to come at the expense of others, with the members of one part of human society metaphorically cannibalizing other members in industrial and commercial exploitation.

This offers no real hope, however. When the ship draws close, the crew spy Death and Life-In-Death playing dice for their souls. To the exploited this system offers only death, and to the exploiters it offers a shambling imitation of life that is worse than death:
The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.

The few receive their comfort at the expense of the many, and that comfort in itself makes life verge on the unbearable. Existential angst over the meaninglessness of industrial society was already being realized by Coleridge and the Romantics, who wrote their poetry and drafted their paintings in rebellion. They recognized that for the few who did manage to benefit from the system of industrial exploitation, there were lives devoid any real life... Shambling beings untouched by sublime ideas, seeking to fill the vacumn left by their souls with more and more material posessions, ever deepening the spiral of their own misery. To attain more things, one must further violate nature and exploit others. The further one falls into this hopeless despair of materialism, adrift in the cosmic sea. The dead are, in a certain sense, the lucky ones. They are the beautiful ones, and we are the slimey. In their death they have seemed more alive than our imitation of life does.

The curse of this life-in-death begins to be removed from the Mariner when deep love for Creation blossoms in his heart. He marvels at the beauty of some passing sea serpents: a colourful symbol recalling Mediaeval maps and their cautions of "here there be dragons", suggesting a whole, beautiful world of the imagination and spirit. Where dragons lay in the unknown of Hercules' Pillars and blank places on the map are marked only by the words "Terra Incognita", the light of Reason has not yet been shed. In this vast expanse of spirit and subconscious, we encounter a bestiary of archetypes pointing to the holiness of our lives and of Creation. As he marvels, something moves inside the Mariner:
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gush'd from my heart,
And I bless'd them unaware...

Because of this silent prayer, the curse is lifted. He heart has openned up and displaced the cold, externalist gaze of his Rational mind. He springs with the Love that reunites him with life, the universe and everything. Without the need to control, he is freed simply to experience the holiness of existence and see the face of the Divine.

In many ways, this echoes the final sequences of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust, in which the title character is redeemed by his final vision of a reconciled society. The angels carrying Faust's soul to Heaven declare:
And if love also from on high
Has helped him through his sorrow,
The hallowed legions of the sky
Will give him glad good morrow.

Both celebrate the power of love to save humanity through reconciliation with nature and each other. But the story of the Mariner is not over when his heart sings for joy and the Albatross slips from around his neck into the sea, his soul liberated by Love from the cold and externalistic gaze of Reason. The soul of the Mariner felt its sweet release, tasted its redemption. He was free from the curse, it seemed, and free to live in new intimacy with God, others and Creation, wrapped in the healing power of the Divine and of Nature.

So it seemed. But revelations are never easy, nor is an entirely new way of life. They are always painful, always frightening. One does not wake up without having spent three days in the tomb. If they weren't, they would be far more common, and there would be no mess to begin with. But when you encounter the Transcendent, when you are Transfigured, it must come with the trials inherent to a whole new way of being. You must be purified, Baptized, cleansed, refined in the fire.

Though the Mariner's spirit has been released, the curse is not yet spent. His conscience has been woken up, and upon waking must encounter the full Sublime majesty of this new spiritual awareness:
The upper air burst into life;
And a hundred fire-flags sheen;
To and fro they were hurried about!
And to and fro, and in and out,
The wan stars danced between.
And the coming wind did roar more loud,
And the sails did sigh like sedge;
And the rain pour'd down from one black cloud;
The Moon was at its edge.

Seeing nature pour herself out in lightning and storm and rain, the Mariner encounters her unrelenting Sublimnity. The Sublime is an age-old philosophical concept attempting to convey that which astounds us in the humility of our existence. The Sublime is that which overpowers our being with the infinite breadth and depth of Space, Time, Nature and Divinity. It forces us into an awareness of our small stature in the face of the cosmos, aquaints us with our utter powerlessness, humbles us with the foolishness of our ego and will.

The Sublime is one of the primary emphases of the Romantic poets, and of Coleridge especially. Conveying the sense of the Sublime is, indeed, what Coleridge excells at and peddles most convincingly in. As you proceed to read his works, you find the constantly recurring images of monumental ruined edifices and vast misty forests, of mighty storms and dark, moonlit nights. This shocking, almost horrifying awareness of the Sublime is Coleridge's closest bedfellow, his dearest beloved. In fact, where the first half of The Rime takes place almost exclusively in the glaring Rational light of the sun, the second half takes place almost exclusively in the Sublime light of the moon.

This awareness of the Sublime, though it may be so shocking, is ultimately absolutely essential. To encounter the Divine, one must be humbled, emptied of pretention and ego, shocked and jarred out of their comfort zone. Not only must this happen, but it cannot help but happen. That is nature of finite humanity encountering the infinite Divine.

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God is revealled frequently, overwhelmingly, in Sublime terms. He speaks from the whirlwind and the storm on the mountain, from burning bushes and in thunder. Coleridge almost directly mirrors such an episode from Scripture, confronting the Ancient Mariner with the terrifying Sublimnity of the angelic hosts. In order to guide him through the gales that assail him, angels proceed to enter the bodies of the dead crew, reanimating them:
They groan'd, they stirr'd, they all uprose,
Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;
It had been strange, even in a dream,
To have seen those dead men rise.
The helmsman steer'd, the ship moved on;
Yet never a breeze up-blew;
The mariners all 'gan work the ropes,
Where they were wont to do;
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools—
We were a ghastly crew.

This closely echoes Ezekiel 37:1-10, where the Lord raises an army from the skeletons left on an ancient and dreary battlefield:
The hand of the LORD was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; and it was full of bones. He caused me to pass among them round about, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley; and lo, they were very dry. He said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" And I answered, "O Lord GOD, You know." Again He said to me, "Prophesy over these bones and say to them, 'O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.' Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones, 'Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life. I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you that you may come alive; and you will know that I am the LORD.'" So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, sinews were on them, and flesh grew and skin covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then He said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, 'Thus says the Lord GOD, "Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they come to life."' So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

This is one of the great horror stories of the Bible, and quite pointedly suggests the value of a certain horror to the development of spirituality, validating the Romantic and Gothic fever dreams of poets like Coleridge.

Eventually, the curse runs itself out and the spirits rush the Ancient Mariner to his native shores for their final step. Coming upon the shore, he is greeted by the Pilot and the Pilot's Boy, and the Hermit who lives in the wood. It is from this pious Hermit that the Mariner seeks to be shriven and receive absolution of his sins.

The nature-loving Hermit is a recollection from the Middle Ages, signifying the desire for intimacy with the Divine that marked the best that the era had to offer. It was this same search for mystic union that fell by the wayside with the Black Death and the dawn of the Modern era, though it was the very thing that would have saved humanity. But it was difficult to stay awake... it was prickly, it was vulnerable, too much so for spirits rent by the plague to handle. The Hermit is the final stage on this journey, standing in as the symbol of a Romantic order uniting the Nature and Divinity in which lies humanity's redemption:
'This Hermit good lives in that wood
Which slopes down to the sea.
How loudly his sweet voice he rears!
He loves to talk with marineres
That come from a far countree.
He kneels at morn, and noon, and eve—
He hath a cushion plump:
It is the moss that wholly hides
The rotted old oak-stump.

Just as the crew greets him, the Mariner's ship sinks suddenly into the deep. The old way is over. Even if he had wanted to return to the old order of alienation from nature, he would be unable to. He has come to far along this spiritual path, his eyes have been opened, and he cannot go back.

Nor is he quite able to stay put. Upon his return to shore, he has the pious Hermit shrive him by having him tell his story. An anon, the Mariner feels the burning urge to tell his story to others, like the philosopher-king of Plato descending back into the cave, to attempt to prick the consciousness of others. Tempting though it may be to repose on the mountaintop of the Transfiguration, engaged forever in the bliss of Divine Love and forsaking the world, the world itself needs healing, and healers who spread the good news.

Coleridge ends his tale on a typically Sublime note, mingling new awareness with the horror of the afflicted consciousness. When the Ancient Mariner departs, the stunned Wedding Guest also stumbles away:
He went like one that hath been stunn'd,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn.

When moving into these transcendnet, mystic realms, one inevitably and necessarily has to pass through existential angst and Sublime horror. Ignorance can be a certain kind of bliss, but it is ultimately not preferable. It is ignorance that led the Mariner to impale the Albatross on his crossbow shaft. New spiritual awareness and new intimacy with redemptive Nature and Divinity may leave us somewhat sadder, but ultimately leaves us better off as growing, loving children of God.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

7 comments:

glimbit said...

There's my bread for the day. Thanks!

Ed Worso said...

Yes, this is most excellent work!

Many thanks for posting this.

Cory The Raven said...

And I thank you guys for enjoying it! I'm glad that my diving into the deep end of the pool isn't losing anybody ^_^

dan o said...

Cory, you and I have more in common than you know. (No, not the haircut.)

By the way, this one should be right up your alley if you don't already know it: The whole business about "raising the kraken" in POTC2, evoking a mythological belief in the power to summon leviathan from the depths--I'll bet lots of folks would be surprised to find that it's in the Old Testament: Job 3:8

Cory The Raven said...

I didn't notice that! If I had a copy of PotC2, I would look that up! ^_^

Hodgson said...

This is a great blog and I'll make a point of mentioning it elsewhere.

A few things of interest, relevant to your post.

The sublime is well defined and described by Edmund Burke in his On the Sublime and the Beautiful; and many other general concerns of art are clearly dealt with.

The sublime in art was possibly best and most consistently treated by John Martin, whose work can also be found online.

Another similarly dark though more various story of the sea is Poe's _The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym_, a favorite of mine.

Cory The Raven said...

Thank you for the commentary and the references!

I'm quite familiar with Burke, and one of the things I find fascinating about him and other discourses on the Sublime that I've read is how the first thing they say before going on to describe the Sublime is that it is ultimately indescribable. I think that's a recognition that ultimately the Sublime cannot really be described by its very nature as an overwhelming experience of humility and horror. Words can be employed, but ultimately fail to convey the experience.